By Kevin Gordon
I have heard that the first step to beating an addiction is admitting that you have one. Automotive sales prove that Americans have an addiction to full size pickup trucks. Recent fuel prices have pushed some potential truck buyers into withdrawal as they make more fuel efficient choices. Since full size pickups still drive enormous sales numbers even with gas above $4.00 a gallon (in the US) the challenge is to keep sales high as gas prices continue to rise. As a result, manufacturers have attempted a number of strategies to push up their MPG numbers. Some use packages that push up their economy numbers and others have gone so far to deploy hybrid drivetrains. Ford took a new approach and put a small displacement direct injected V6 with two turbos into the 2011 F-150 and have branded it the F-150 EcoBoost.
During my time with the truck I found myself describing the engine to people who knew nothing about the motor as a diesel design that runs on gasoline. I was shocked at how many well informed “car guys” had no clue what this motor was. I have know about it since it was a very early rumor on the Internet and have spent an unhealthy amount of time watching it progress into a mass produced product. This includes all of Ford’s well-documented torture tests and also their seemly relentless advertising during televised auto races. While it might strange to say that this engine is using diesel technology, with direct injection, water cooled turbos, and a slight whistle while boost builds, it isn’t a giant leap. So has Ford changed the truck game and allowed buyers to fulfill their jones for a full size pickup without the pump penalty? Hit the jump to find out.
(For anyone new to Autosavant we would like you to know that we have added a similar truck to our permanent garage as a long term test truck. Our updates are available here: http://www.autosavant.com/category/long-term-tests/ and on Twitter @autosavantkg )
Before I get to all of the details, allow me to pull back the curtain a bit and share with you the struggle I had while outlining my thoughts about this truck. I can only promise that it isn’t my intention to endlessly gush, but after spending a significant amount of time behind the wheel of the 2011 F-150 EcoBoost I can honestly say that there are few better ways to spend $47k (that is sticker, with some negotiation the true cost would be closer to $40k) on an automobile. It might not be the greenest choice, but if you ever need to move something larger than a lawn chair there may be nothing better than this full size pickup. I just can’t think of another place you can get this much leather, steel, power, and technology for the price. As a car to take family vacations in, the amount of rear seat leg room affords the ability to easily manage car seats while still having the ability to store things on the rear floor and in the bed. As a daily commuter, the truck provides luxury levels of refinement and comfort. It is so good that I managed to convert quite a few people who previously thought that full size pickups were useless, and that a full size SUV was the thing to have, into agreeing that it would be the large family vehicle to own.
With that warning, I think it is only fair to balance it with the bad news. First, the headlights on the F-150 are severely underpowered and do not do a sufficient job of lighting the road ahead. Even with the fog lights lit, I found myself constantly over driving the low beams, to flick on the high beams only to grumble that they provide almost no more illumination. Next, at this price point there were two things missing from this truck. First, it didn’t have any kind of running board or tubular step bar. I realize that this is only an option check away, but in a truck this tall, at this level of trim, they should be included. It took shorter passengers some instruction on how to gracefully enter the truck. The simplest solution to this problem is to buy the next version up (the Platinum model) and get the power deployable running boards typically found on Lincoln models as part of the package. Second, Ford needs to improve their bed management in their F-150 range. The fact that you only get four tie-down points in the bed is a noticeable omission from their option list. I own a fishing kayak and took it on a few trips during my time with the truck. By the end of my test period I found myself wishing there were more options to keep cargo secured in the back of the truck. The third part of this package that was less than ideal was the lack of engine braking and sound from the EcoBoost motor, but more on that later. Finally, the interior of the F-150 is greatly improved compared to their previous models and current competitors, but during times of warm weather the contrast in temperature between the hot dashboard and cool air conditioning cause a noticeable squeak in the main panel that covered the gauge pod. And with that out of the way, here is the good news: even with these shortcomings, this truck proves that Ford can compete with the world best manufacturers and win.
The primary thing that I wanted to discover during my time with this new motor/truck combination was if it managed to motivate this this large truck while improving on the low-teen miles per gallon typically experienced in full size trucks. When the truck was delivered with Ford’s max tow package I had to question if I could the truck was going to represent itself fairly. The max tow package equips the F-150 with the shortest ratio rear axle available on a standard F-150 which is more focused on pulling power and not highway efficiency. After putting more than 1000 miles on the odometer I think I have a pretty solid understanding of what one can expect out of this truck/motor combination.
Here is the result: I drove the truck for a total of 1,022.4 miles. During that time I burned 59.1 gallons of 87 octane resulting in an average of 17.3 miles per gallon across the entire trip. The truck was running for a little over 34 hours to travel this many miles, which means I averaged a measly 29.2 miles per hour. The important part of this number is that it shows that these were very mixed driving conditions, there was a lot of city, and stop and go driving as well as longer highway blasts. This trip also included towing a mid-sized trailer for 70 of the miles. Since most of the highway driving in my area has a 65 MPH speed limit, most clear highway travel was a closer average to 75. The difference in fuel economy between 55-60 and 65-70 is substantial. Instant fuel economy readings during steady state highway travel in the 60 MPH range showed at about 21.5 miles per gallon while travel at 70 MPH plus dropped that number to around 19 MPG. Here again is where that shorter rear end made a difference. At 70 MPH, the engine is spinning much more than required to move the truck through the air. I have to believe that a truck equipped with a 3.55 or 3.31 rear would improve economy a few tenths on all of these numbers. A few tenths of a mile per gallon might not sound like a lot, but in some cases it could add up to a five percent improvement. A small gain like that over the long life of a truck would be substantial. The economy of the truck is impressive; the best mixed driving number I have experienced in a truck with this much power previously ranged around 14 MPG. The fact that this truck can come close to the real world fuel economy of my wife’s Honda Pilot points that something special is happening here.
I made sure to attempt some towing with the truck, since otherwise I’d be wasting this F-150′s max tow package. This package equips the truck with a 3.73 ratio axle, large manually extendable towing mirrors, and a trailer brake controller. I understand why this is an option, as this package is what allows Ford to claim a 11,300 lbs load number for the EcoBoost motor, but unless you’re towing something close to to 10,000 lbs, I would recommend something with a taller final drive. With that said, the truck tows beautifully. The backup camera with zoom makes connecting a snap, and once hooked up, the trailer brake controller is simple to adjust. In addition, the ability to store multiple trailers in memory would be a real convenience if you frequently switched between trailers.
The information center gives a good level of detail about what is happening behind you as well. I didn’t necessarily challenge the truck while towing a 20’ enclosed featherlite trailer loaded with approximately 3000 pounds of used wheels and tires, but it did give me a clear impression that Ford has done their homework ensuring that both truck and engine are capable of moving large loads. To be honest, having a few extra thousand pounds behind the truck really didn’t change the personality the way it drives. I believe a lot of this credit is due to the electric power steering (EPS) in the F-150. The steering remains well weighted with a trailer and its ability to compensate for a cross wind is proof that EPS is useful for more than just saving fuel. I remember towing in an older Toyota Tundra that was greatly unsettled by mid corner bumps while braking downhill. Here again, Ford’s sway control managed to keep things controlled and smooth while I jerked, braked, and generally did things you’re not supposed to while towing. The only major shortcoming of towing with the EcoBoost is a general lack of engine braking. The transmission, while in tow haul mode, does a good job of downshifting while descending hills, but the little V6 just doesn’t do a lot to slow the progress of the truck. Here again, there is more good news, the braking system of the 2011 F-150’s provided the most solid pedal I have experienced in a Ford truck and it appears as if the brakes could take quite a bit of punishment before cooking themselves.
Braking capability is important in something this big that is as quick as it is. The EcoBoost isn’t a tire shredder from idle, but once a bit of boost builds it pulls with a strong and quiet authority. However, I have it on good authority that burnouts are possible in an F-150 EcoBoost. While in motion, the turbos feel instantly ready to respond regardless of speed or RPM. Highway passing takes no planning; just mash the gas and you are instantly gaining speed. It is rare that in something this large, pulling around this much weight, you find yourself merging into traffic at a higher rate of speed than it is traveling, but that is how authoritatively it gains speed. Think Rolls Royce Ghost, not Mustang GT, but it always accomplishes its goal. Here is a minor gripe: the engine just doesn’t make any noise. In some ways, this adds to a refined experience, but leaves the enthusiast a little wanting. If you crack the windows you can hear the turbos spool and it is an intoxicating noise. Also, during full throttle acceleration there is a nice little burble during the shift between first and second. It is similar to what you get from a direct shift turbo BMW, but so muted you really need to listen to hear it. It will be interesting to see what the aftermarket does with this truck. Someone will be greatly improving this motor’s soundtrack.
The truck is far from a sports car, but with the excellent power steering and a solid chassis it is capable of being pushed on a back road with some feedback making back to the driver about what is happening around him or her. With traction control fully disabled (thank you Ford for making this possible) it is more than possible to play with the rear end on damp roads. Ride is good for a full size truck that is capable of pulling 10,000 plus pounds. Over choppy roads, an the unloaded rear it will bounce and stutter from time-to-time. Still, it manages as well at the last Dodge Ram that I drove, and that truck has abandoned leaf springs for rear coils to improve its ride. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to test the 4×4 capabilities, other than to slip the truck into and out of four wheel drive while driving on hard-packed sand.
Once you’ve climbed into the high driver’s seat of the Lariat level trim spec truck, the driver is greeted with good quality leather seats. Ford has done a good job of balancing comfort for a wide Americans without being so flat you feel like you’re going to fall out of the door (I’m looking at you, Toyota). This tester was equipped with the heated/cooled seat option, which at $995 is a worthwhile option if you live anywhere that temperatures exceed 90 degrees F. The center stack was fitted with light-colored fake wood that received mixed reactions, and the dash is covered in rawhide grain-imprinted vinyl. It isn’t going to fool the connoisseur, but they have made an effort to provide a pleasant place to spend some time. Against that standard, they have accomplished their goal. With the ability to power adjust the pedals and the seat and to manually adjust the tilt and telescope of the steering wheel it would be a challenge to be in an uncomfortable driving position. I took a few two-plus hour trips and never found myself uncomfortable or needing a break for a stretch. Speaking of stretching, if you’ve never experienced the rear seat of a modern four door F-150, take the time to visit one. Rear seat leg room borders on excessive. With a rear facing child seat installed, my older daughter was still capable of walking behind the drivers seat adjusted for my six foot frame. The seat bottoms also fold up, leaving a completely flat rear floor, with the exception of the Sony branded sub-woofer on the passenger side floor.
Also installed on this truck was the Sony Navigation Radio with Ford Sync. We have spent a lot of time talking about how excellent Sync is, so I will not repeat that praise here, but I do feel like it is important to talk about the stereo/infotainment system in the truck. Ford’s Sony stereo system has managed to strike a good balance of being loud, providing good separation, while maintaining clarity that competing Bose, JBL, and Rockford systems can’t quite match. One important note for drivers: turn off speed sensitive volume compensation. Ford’s system suffers for the same problem as almost every other manufacturer, the EQ settings that these speed sensitive system use distort bass so badly that they ruin the quality of music.
The navigation interface is a good one and would leave an owner of a new Ford Explorer with MyTouch wanting. There are a lot of buttons, but they provide clear paths to commonly used features and can be operated in gloves. The best part is that there are knobs for volume and tuning. From a user interface perspective, nothing works like controls that are universally understood and can be found and operated by touch. Additionally, most features can be operated by redundant steering wheel buttons, or by voice commands. On the steering wheel there is also a four way toggle button that controls a 4.2” screen between the speedo and tach which Ford has named the Productivity Center. Here, a driver can see vehicle information, fuel economy, off-road data, and towing information. I frequently left it on the instant mile per gallon bar graph, which does a decent job of coaching to be light on the gas.
With the EcoBoost Ford hasn’t completely changed the fuel economy game, but they have taken a step in the correct direction. People craving full size truck goodness can now have it with less of a penalty while being rewarded with class-leading torque and towing. This is Ford showing that they know how to build the best selling full size truck. They take a package that works, and iteratively improve it. So for those whose who need a half ton pickup for work or hobbies, the F-150 EcoBoost is a required test drive. Those who just have come to be psychologically dependent on the convenience of a large vehicle with a bed that can actually carry items that would foul the interior of your full size SUV, take a serious look at the F-150 EcoBoost.